Apocalypse Not

President Bush announced the day before yesterday that he favored a constitutional amendment defining marriage as referring to the union of a man and a woman.  He did not endorse the language of any specific proposed constitutional amendment, such as Congresswoman Musgrave's proposal now circulating in the House, and he noted that he believed that the states could decide on their own about other legal arrangements.  He also encouraged people to discuss and debate this very contentious issue in civil, respectful tones.


The President in other words endorsed the language that has been used to describe marriage since the inception of the concept, endorsed federalism and states' rights, and called for reasoned debate. That is not the summary that appeared in most of your morning papers.


The President's action followed several very well—reported recent developments with regard to gay marriage. In Massachusetts, the state's Supreme Court by a 4 to 3 margin, decided that it will make the law for the citizens of the Commonwealth on this issue. Civil unions, it determined, are not enough to insure fairness and non—discrimination, and full gay marriage rights are required.  In San Francisco, the new Mayor decided that state law on what defines marriage means nothing in his city, and his personal tastes and politics will dictate the law for the city.  In other words, we have chaos at the moment, caused both by judicial overreach and administrative civil disobedience.  This is not a fight that the President wanted, nor asked for. 


It is interesting of course, to note how sympathetically the mainstream press treated the civil disobedience of the Mayor of San Francisco, and how negatively they treated  Alabama's Judge Moore who, in another recent act of civil disobedience,  refused to remove a courthouse statue with the Ten Commandments. The human interest story in San Francisco was how happy the gay couples were to be able to marry, not the reckless disregard of the law by the Mayor. While almost everybody supports committed relationships of any kind, the Mayor's actions seem to me to be far less praiseworthy. 


Following the President's press conference, all hell broke loose from gay rights activists.  Most prominent among them was the normally sober Andrew Sullivan, a self—described gay conservative, and author of a generally interesting political blog.  Sullivan, in heated prose, argued that the Republican Party had written off the gay community for a generation, by incorporating discrimination into the constitution. Sullivan appeared last night on several cable talk shows, indiscriminately bashing Bush for his statement. He joined long time Bush hater  Katrina vanden Heuvel on one panel, who was more than happy to welcome him to her loathing club. As a conservative, and previous Bush supporter, Sullivan was the type of guest the news shows were looking for — somebody angry enough to have abandoned the President for his horrible act.


Sullivan, and others should take a chill pill.  Sullivan falsely accused the President of opposing civil unions and endorsing the Musgrave amendment. The President did no such thing. He gave no endorsement to any specific bill or proposed amendment. He merely argued that marriage means one thing, and other legal arrangements need to be called something else.  If each of the 50 states endorsed civil unions, with equal rights for gay partners as exist for married couples, this would not be inconsistent with the President's message, and the difference between gay marriage and civil unions would then be only semantic.  Practical equality for gays would be achieved, but their unions would not be called marriage.


This semantic quibbling hardly makes for a great civil rights struggle, nor for that matter does it justify the slanderous charge that by defining marriage as one thing and civil unions as something else, that discrimination was being written for all time into our founding documents. The President's language did not endorse discrimination, but rather linguistic specificity.  As Sullivan may also know, even if a constitutional amendment were passed, that too, over time could be reversed, if the popular will was there to do it. The 18th amendment— which created prohibition of alcohol, was gone in a few decades with its repeal in the 21st amendment. 


The country, as Sullivan should surely know, is changing very rapidly as far as its attitudes towards gays. Young people are much more tolerant of gays and comfortable with gay unions and even gay marriage than previous generations. Several states are in the process of considering legislation to allow for civil unions. Many municipalities and corporations already provide benefits for gay partners of their workers. But much as with the women's movement, as the bar to real equality has greatly diminished or disappeared, the rhetoric of the movement has become more overheated and intemperate. Sullivan and other gay rights advocates like to paint opposition to gay marriage as a cause primarily of the Christian right, the same bad guys as in the Alabama Ten Commandments case, and bad guys as well for their opposition to abortion, and for their position on other social issues that are part of the nation's great cultural divide. 


Sullivan should understand that many people, who are not members of the cultural or Christian right, also do not approve of judicial law making, or the arrogance of the Mayor's actions in San Francisco. As a conservative, Sullivan should support the rule of law and the role of legislators, rather than courts or mayors, in deciding these issues.  It is Bush who is protecting this conservative tradition in this case, not the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and not the Mayor of San Francisco.  The recent actions by the Massachusetts Court and the Mayor of San Francisco have hardened attitudes about gay marriage among many Americans, not hastened its acceptance. Process matters. 


 It is also the case that a constitutional amendment  defining marriage is highly unlikely to be passed under any circumstances (an amendment to the Constitution has been adopted only 27 times in 215 years, and only 17 times since the Bill of Rights). Two thirds majorities in both Houses of Congress, and approval by 3/4 of the states is no easy task.   I suspect the President knows this, and more than anything, is trying to bring some order to consideration of an issue that at the moment is spinning out of control.  


Consideration of a constitutional amendment defining marriage, might, ironically, hasten the acceptance of civil unions, (a less controversial option) which may achieve the de facto equality under the law that most gays seek. If on the other hand, this struggle is really all about the dignity of semantic equality, I don't think most people in this country regard that alone as a reason for any titanic civil rights struggle, nor so they see the President's actions as an apocalyptic disaster for the gay community. So too, most Americans do not view the Mayor of San Francisco as a latter day Martin Luther King. 


Sullivan has been a supporter of the President on the war in Iraq—region>, and the war on terror.  He has been a traditional conservative in his criticism of excessive government spending, and deficits.  After yesterday, he says he is now lost to the Bush camp.  Fine. If he regards the President's definition of marriage as more critical to the nation's future than his stewardship in the war on terror, then Sullivan is entitled to allow his obsession to dominate his other critical faculties.